The city’s smallest yet busiest passenger rail station is set for upgrades that could transform Austin’s downtown. But officials with regional transit authority Capital Metro said these upgrades are just the first steps toward building the rail system that launched in 2010.

MetroRail’s $50M upgrades aim to speed up service, double capacityCapital Metro, which operates the Austin area’s passenger rail service MetroRail, is receiving $50 million in grant funding from the Texas Department of Transportation. About $22 million of that money will fund upgrades at Downtown Station, the terminal station of the Red Line, currently the only MetroRail line in operation. The proposed improvements include the installment of two additional platforms, or areas in which passengers get on or off a train; a pedestrian plaza between Neches and Trinity streets; and modifications to the Lance Armstrong Bikeway to allow for enhanced safety.

About $28 million will be used to purchase four new rail car units, which will allow for more frequent train stops and more passengers per trip.

Todd Hemingson, Capital Metro vice president of planning and development, said the improvements, which will occur by 2018, pave the way for further enhancements to the rail system.

“We definitely think this significant improvement ... is a step in the right direction, but that’s not the end of the story, so to speak,” he said.

Although Capital Metro has completed its public involvement process, another one is beginning within the city of Austin.

Proposed traffic changes

Of the two concepts considered  during Capital Metro’s public engagement process, a majority of stakeholders supported an option that calls for removing automobile traffic on Fourth Street from Red River Street to Trinity Street. Cycling, walking and taking the train would be the only modes of transportation as the area near the Hilton Hotel Austin and the Austin Convention Center is converted into a pedestrian and transit hub.

From Red River Street to Trinity Street, Fifth Street would also be converted to a two-way road.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she saw an opportunity, especially with so many mobility issues at hand, to initiate a visioning process for the area around the rail station.

“I believe that [area entities] agreeing on general concepts for that area and things we hope to achieve is a very useful step,” Tovo said. “We want to make sure as the various changes start happening to that area that they do so in concert with a long-range adopted vision.”

On Feb. 25, Austin City Council passed a resolution toward that vision. Among the tenets of the resolution is a public involvement stage. The first such meeting had yet to be scheduled as of press time March 18, but changes such as the orientation of traffic or the closure of auto access on city streets would require approval from council, Tovo said.

Although 69 percent of stakeholders and coordinating agencies favored the concept that calls for closing off auto access on Fourth between Red River and Trinity, 19 percent favored a concept that calls for shared auto and bicycle access on Fourth from Sabine Street to Neches. Twelve percent of respondents had no preference.

Kimberly Blackmon, a Hilton Hotels & Resorts representative, said the Hilton Austin’s general manager is reviewing the plans for that area of Downtown and declined to be interviewed until decisions are made.

Stakeholder engagement

MetroRail’s $50M upgrades aim to speed up service, double capacity MetroRail’s Downtown Station will implement $50 million in infrastructure improvements that aim to make train stops more frequent and increase capacity by 2018.[/caption]

The Downtown Austin Alliance, which advocates for the district’s economic vitality in policy decisions, will also lead a series of public meetings to engage stakeholders in the vicinity of the proposed changes.

DAA Vice President of Planning Melissa Barry said her role is to harmonize the visions for mobility, public space and public-private partnerships in the area.

In addition to expanding rail service, the proposed changes carry implications for future build-out potential of I-35, a planned Austin Convention Center expansion and major private developments in the area, according to the City Council resolution.

MetroRail’s $50M upgrades aim to speed up service, double capacityA set of Austin Transportation Department traffic analyses will be done to confirm whether traffic changes favored by stakeholders will be feasible.

Barry said some downtown stakeholders remain opposed to closing off auto access on a portion of Fourth.

“There are concerns from people who live and work in the immediate vicinity,” she said. “My understanding is that the city and Capital Metro are working to address those concerns hand-in-hand with the stakeholders. We are looking at really moving forward from [the Capital Metro stakeholder input process] ... to integrating with the rest of the mobility and public space infrastructure.”

Laura Esparza, who manages museums and cultural programs in the city of Austin Parks and Recreation Department, said Brush Square Museums has been involved in discussions with the DAA over the proposed rail station upgrades, among other items. Brush Square is home to the Joseph and Susanna Dickinson Hannig Museum, O. Henry Museum and Austin Fire Museum, which receive city support.

Esparza said the improvements could potentially be the impetus for significant improvements to Brush Square, a historic square near the proposed improvements. The square is exploring all options for funding such projects as landscaping in the front and back of the property as well as more attractive fencing to replace the current chain-link fence that surrounds the square, she said.

“Brush Square is one of Austin’s oldest squares and was a major crossroads for the city of Austin,” she said. “We are very excited about this development because we think that it will make contributions in the long term to preserving Austin’s history and its historic museums.”